The Good, the Bad, and the Boring in Theater and Other Creative Arts Around and About Hampton Roads, VA.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Lebanon, Pa—The Movie
A Diamond in the Dung

             It was hardly noticeable among the flashy new releases and kinky comedies on the shelves at my fast-paced neighborhood video store. In fact, there was just a single copy. But the title jumped out at me. Lebanon, Pa. I know Lebanon. I grew up twenty or thirty miles down the road in neighboring Lancaster.
            Why would anyone make a film about Lebanon?
            I saw from the jacket it had won a few festival awards. Named the best film made in Pennsylvania in 2010. Hardly a great distinction, but an honor all the same. What could this movie be about?
            The brief synopsis on the cover described a jilted and jaded advertising jockey in Philadelphia who returns to his birth place in Lebanon, PA, to settle his father’s estate. There he finds a teen-age distant niece who is pregnant and an attractive, unhappily married school teacher in a position to help. Inevitable interactions follow, and everyone learns lessons and is changed.
            Not something I would ordinarily rent. But the title intrigued me. I decided to check it out.
            I’m really glad I did. Lebanon, Pa, written, directed, and edited by freshman film maker Ben Hickernell, is easily the most honest and authentic portrayal I’ve ever seen of ordinary life in the suburbs and small towns spreading out from urban America. And it’s never been more topical, with Pennsylvanian Rick Santorum running for President on a Biblical platform which puts the reproductive rights of women on a chopping block.
            But the topicality is incidental to the full and fair hearing the film gives to opposing sides of the urban-rural divide in America.
Rachel Kitson as CJ
            When CJ (Rachel Kitson), a high school senior, becomes pregnant, her boy friend rejects her but later is forced by his father to step up to say he’ll marry her. The parish priest emphatically agrees, and so does Andy (Ian Merrill Peakes), her single dad—Mom died several years before—who has his hands full with her and her insolent younger brother Chase (Hunter Gallagher).
            This tense scene is just about to break out in the open when Will (Josh Hopkins) arrives in town from Philadelphia. His parents had separated long ago and he went to the city to live with his mother. He hardly knew his father. But now, as the only child and his mother still bitter, it’s up to him to go to Lebanon, clean out his father’s house, and sell it.
            CJ tells Will her secret. She’s pregnant but she wants to go to college. She’s looking into abortion.
Josh Hopkins as Will
            That puts Will in the middle between CJ and Andy, who thinks abortion is an abomination while Will has a pro-choice bumper sticker on his late-model VW Bug. Later, after a pair of town red necks beat him up, he tears it off. That comes after he’s further offended folks by getting drunk and familiar in public with Vicki (Samantha Mathis), CJ’s teacher, which in turn brings her irate husband storming to his door to claim his wife. With that, Will’s status in town as an outsider and outcast is sealed.
            This is a values film, obviously, and in watching it I feared I’d rented a pro-life movie out of Regent University. But no. Like life, this film isn’t that simple. Both sides are compassionately represented—the pro-life religious mainstream of Lebanon and the pro-choice alternative centered at the “Planned Parenting” clinic in Philadelphia. But, as in all communities in America today, not everyone in Lebanon is a pro-life religious conservative.
Ian Merrill Peakes as Andy
            Will CJ defy the consensus opinion—get an abortion and follow her plan to go to college in Philly? Or will she submit to the pressure from her father, her boy friend’s family, her pastor, and her peers to stay in Lebanon and raise a family? I could only hope but I could not predict what she would do until the end. To say any more would be to say too much. But the truth of the film’s characterizations and events reminded me a whole lot of my own teenage years in Lancaster in the 1950s. Things haven’t changed that much in southeastern Pennsylvania with its pig-headed, paranoid, Pennsylvania Dutch brand of Christian fundamentalism. Lebanon, Pa captures that traditional, settled ambiance—forever caught in a moral struggle between church and bar, Saturday night and Sunday morning—with the keen and faithful eye of a country music ballad.
            In the end, after all sides are fairly and truthfully represented and just about everyone we’ve met in town becomes involved, CJ must make her own decision. I found the result satisfying. But loose ends are left dangling, as they would be in life. There is no resolution to the abortion debate, but there is resolution for CJ and, perhaps, even for Will. Samantha has some things to work out. Andy certainly does. And brother Chase has grown up a little himself.
            The performances of all the actors are engrossing, but particular credit must go to Kitson as CJ, Peakes as Andy, and Hopkins as Will for the fullness of their portrayals. That would have been impossible without a nuanced, well-crafted script, which handles hot-button issues, particularly abortion, fearlessly and fairly with the jury simply dismissed—no side of the issue either justified or vindicated. Life goes on, happier for some than for others for the time being but same-old same-old for most.
            Critics seem to have given Lebanon, Pa mixed reviews—some disparaging it, others praising it highly. I’m with the latter. It’s a rare kind of movie—low-key, not very innovative, but truthful and heartfelt to the core, and that alone makes up for a lot. Its main fault is a spastic flow of continuity from shot to shot within scenes—the only reminder that this is the work of a youthful, relatively inexperienced, but very promising film maker.
            Rent it, if you can, and see for yourselves. I predict you’ll be pleasantly surprised.